Some foods, however briefly encountered in our travels, are so good that we can’t help but dream of them, attempt to re-create them, and even plan an entire trip just to eat the original again. For me, that dish was a street-stand tamale that I had while reporting from Mexico City.
I spent the better part of my life using the phrase hot tamale without having any idea what a tamale—or tamal, as it's called in Mexico—actually is. So here's what it is: corn-flour dough wrapped in a corn husk and then steamed.
But that hardly does justice to the envelope of joy that is this traditional Mexican treat. As peelable foods go, tamales are even more fun than bananas. The corn flour, or masa, swaddled inside is mixed with lard—at least in Mexico. But it's what's inside that masa that really counts.
Tamale fillings are like dialects in Mexico. There seems to be a different one for each village. You can get sautéed strips of sweet poblano chili, chicharrón (pork rinds), lima beans, chicken seasoned with the sassafras-like Mexican herb called hoja santa, and, one of my favorites, succulent pork in a fiery red chili sauce. (Years ago, a friend's cleaning lady gave me a pork and chili tamale that I still think about once a week.)
The best tamale I ever ate was also, on the face of things, the stupidest. I was about to spend the afternoon on a culinary odyssey in Mexico City's famous Xochimilco Market when a woman outside offered me one. Eating it made about as much strategic sense as grabbing a hot dog on your way into Nobu.
Naturally, I ate it. I pulled down the corn husk to reveal that soft pillow of masa, and the first bite—these things are soft enough to rip apart with your tongue—revealed the filling: chicken in a green tomatillo sauce. There are two things I will never forget about that tamale. The first is the way it tasted: the soft, supple, creamy masa giving way to a blasting inner core of spicy chicken. The second is the price: about $1.
One Tamale, Two Tamale
There are seemingly as many tamale variations in Mexico as there are cities. Where to begin? We asked two of Condé Nast Traveler’s Mexico travel specialists for their favorite tamale destinations.
“I love the tamales in Oaxaca, where they are known for using thin corn dough and lots of filling. I like getting the pork leg tamale from the Tamales Geno stand in La Merced market, helmed by a vivacious mestizo woman who’s constantly steaming and folding the tasty treats right there at the stand. For less-traditional tamales, I travel to Itanoní, a restaurant on the outskirts of the city known for its corn-based dishes. There I order the flor de calabaza, or squash-flower tamale, stuffed with the freshest squash [Av. Belisario Domínguez 513, Colonia Reforma; 52-951-513-9223]. On the way back to the city center, I find it hard not to stop at the Monte Álban ruins, where you can walk through a maze of tunnels that connect many of the structures, which date to 500 b.c.” –Zachary Rabinor, Journey Mexico
Mexico City and Surroundings
“If I’m in Mexico City, I will pick up a tamale at the Xochimilco Market. My favorites are the delicious sweet pink tamales, which are softer than the regular ones and are filled with raisins and cinnamon. It’s lovely to buy one and bring it aboard a colorfully painted boat in the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco, where a local will row you through canals rimmed with flower-filled gardens [one hour, $16 for two people]. At Turtux, in Mexico City’s San Ángel, chef Margarita Carrillo Arronte, author of Larousse’s definitive Tamales y Atoles Mexicanos, serves tamales in a variety of regional styles. One of the most popular is the Tamal de Siete Cueros, made with layers of black beans and hoja santa (Av. de la Paz 57; 52-55-5550-3632]. I love to stop in the small town of Texcalyacac, about an hour south of Mexico City, for tamales by the ‘queens of street food.’ Two sisters, Lupita and Clemencia Alonso, cook tamales on the main street, Michoacan, and their selection changes daily—the tamales are always memorable, whether they’re filled with chicken or pork.” –Adamarie King, Connoisseur’s Travel
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